It’s institute season here at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. My colleagues and I have hit the road, traveling all over the country leading institutes (weeklong courses) on the teaching of reading and writing. And, there’s nothing like teaching an institute to get me storytelling stories from my classroom. You know, those precious/quirky/ridiculous/memorable moments that capture the true nature of living and learning in a roomful of kids day after day.
For example, I often tell the story of Alejandro who, when asked “Tell me about the kind of reader you are?”, looked up at the ceiling, carefully considered my question, and after a long pause replied, “I’m the kind of reader who… likes math.” Love!
I also tell moments that reveal my flaws and foibles as a beginning workshop teacher. I joke about how during my first year of workshop teaching, I was in great shape. The reason? I was terrified (Terrified!) of pulling up alongside a writer and asking the conferring question, “How’s it going?” I was terrified because my teaching-of-writing pockets weren’t very deep and I was certain that conferring with my writers would reveal the fraud I believed I was. So, I walked laps round and round my room. Every so often the Nike ‘Just Do It’ voice in my head would win and I would pause mid-lap, pull up alongside a kid and ask, “How’s it going?” To which Wendy or Jose or Dea would reply, “Good.” Then I’d say, “Good. Keep up the good work,” and resume my laps.
That was over fifteen years ago. I’ve come a long way since that first year. (I owe so much to so many members of the TCRWP community who shared their hard-earned knowledge, expertise and brilliance with me—Lucy Calkins, Kathleen Tolan, Mary Ehrenworth, Amanda Hartman and Colleen Cruz, to name a few.) My thinking and practices around conferring have changed dramatically. Specifically, I now know that the most successful conferences are done with the student, rather than to the student.
One way to accomplish that writer-to-writer rapport in a conference is to teach kids some predictable things writers talk about when discussing their writing. You see, I’d always had this fantasy of pulling up along a student during writing workshop and the student saying, “Thank goodness you’re here. I’ve been working on… and I could really use some help with…” At some point, I realized that rather than waiting for this particular miracle, I could simply teach kids how to talk about their writing at the beginning of a conference.
My list of what to teach begins with topic. You might teach kids to say, “My piece is about…” You may be thinking, “Um Shana, my kids tell me their topic without any teaching or prompting.” True enough. Still, we can teach kids that a sentence about their topic is usually enough. We can also teach kids to push past what the piece is about and into what it’s really about by asking a follow-up question like, “Okay, you’re writing about… Have you thought about what you want your readers, your audience, to think, feel or know after reading your piece?” I find that talking with kids about audience is incredibly powerful. If kids can identify even just one reader (besides you, their teacher) that they want to read their piece, then all sorts of decisions from structure to tone to message become much more concrete and therefore easier to support.
Knowing where a writer is in his or her writing process helps us know what kind of support to offer. During rehearsal, I want writers to dwell in possibility—considering a variety of moments/topics/issues they could write about and a variety of ways they could develop those. During revision, I want writers to embrace a spirit of experimentation, trying out parts of their drafts in different structures, tenses or tones. Because of this, I teach writers to say something about where they are in the writing process. Also, sometimes I look at what’s on the page and I get a kind of tunnel vision—I picture this exact page on the writing gallery in the hall—and I start to teach the writing, specifically the errors in punctuation and spelling, rather than the writer. There is a place and time for every kind of instruction our writers want and need across the writing process. That’s why knowing where a writer is in his or her process is so important.
While the first two items—topic and writing process—provide general research, teaching writers to talk about their next steps in a conference yields much more interesting information. Writers are planful. So talking about next steps in a conference reinforces that writers plan. They plan what to do with a current piece. They plan future pieces they want to write. They have a stack of mentors they plan to read, etc. I find that even when writers glance at the chart and say, “Next I am planning to…” with a grand dramatic pause, they almost always fill in the blank with something worth doing. Plus, I love following up with, “Any idea how you are going to approach that work?” Our smart and sophisticated students have such wonderfully original ways for how they are going to proceed in their work. One writer decided to reread really sad parts of books from her reading log to see if she could figure out how to write a story that would make her readers cry. Because I loved this idea and wanted to see this writer succeed, I also pushed for accountability by asking, “Any thoughts on how you will organize your notes to capture what you are discovering?”
I love what Peter Johnston, author of Choice Words: How Language Affects Learning, says about trouble. He says that we need to normalize trouble in our classrooms. He adds that trouble is neither good or bad, it’s information. I love this. Everyone—reader, writer, teacher, friend, partner—encounters trouble. The goal is not to live a trouble-free life. The goal is to become more and more accomplished at navigating and learning from trouble. Still, lots of kids come to us thinking trouble is a bad thing. For this reason, I often have to model what talking about writing trouble sounds like. I recently explained to a student that I was having trouble making time for writing in my life. I explained how hard it was to squeeze writing in when I got home because at home there was the dog and the dishes and my desk with its endless to-do lists. I also shared how my amazing writing partner, Katy Wischow, suggested a fabulous solution—make a writing pit stop (even five minutes counts!) on the way home. Again, it’s important to follow up on trouble by asking, “What have you tried so far?”
So while I’ve yet to pull up alongside a writer who says, “Thank goodness you’re here. I could really use some help with…”, teaching kids what to talk about in a conference comes pretty close. Most importantly, teaching this will change the dynamic between you and your students during conferring. Give it a try and let me know what you discover.